Improve your breathing for health, happiness and well-being.
Did you know that the way you breathe can be detrimental to your well-being? Poor posture, stress, muscular tension … all can make the ‘effortless’ act of breathing hard work without us realising. And breathing isn’t just a physical activity; it influences our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, too.
In the world of breathing, there is one figure who stands out as a pioneer in the eld of understanding and improving the art of breathing. His name is Frederick Matthias Alexander, and he developed his method of breathing co-ordination in the late 1800s due to difficulties he had with his own voice and breathing. Over a number of years, he developed a technique that helped people to replace their detrimental breathing and postural habits with a freer and more expansive way of being. To understand his method, it would be helpful to first look at the story of how Alexander overcame his own voice and breathing problems, as it is truly extraordinary by any standards.
Alexander was born in Tasmania, Australia, in 1869 and was from mixed Scottish and Irish descent. He was born prematurely and suffered from respiratory problems from the day he was born. Due to his frail health, he was taken out of school at an early age and was tutored by the local school teacher in the evenings. As Alexander got older, he became interested in amateur dramatics and, at the age of twenty, he travelled to Melbourne, where he spent three months going to the theatre, concerts and art galleries. At the end of this period, Alexander had firmly decided that he wanted to train to become an actor and reciter.
Alexander stayed on in Melbourne to train to become an actor, and it wasn’t long before he gained a fine reputation as a first-class reciter. He went on to form his own theatre company, specialising in one-man Shakespeare recitals. As he became increasingly successful, Alexander began to accept more and more engagements and his audiences increased in size, and, as a consequence, so did the halls in which he performed. With no microphones or other aids, his voice came under increasing strain. After a while the strain began to show, as his breathing became audible and he regularly became hoarse in the middle of his performances. He approached a variety of people, including doctors and voice trainers, who gave him medication and exercises, but soon all treatment became ineffective and his voice deteriorated still further, until, on one occasion, Alexander could barely finish his recital. His concern grew as he realised that this problem was threatening his entire career.
Increasingly desperate, Alexander approached his doctor again and, after a fresh examination of Alexander’s throat, the doctor was convinced that the vocal cords had merely been over-strained and prescribed complete voice rest for two weeks. Determined to try anything, Alexander used his voice as little as possible for the next fortnight. At the beginning of his next performance he was delighted because he found that the hoarseness had completely disappeared and that his voice was crystal clear; however, halfway through the performance, the hoarseness returned even worse than before, and by the end of the evening the hoarseness was so acute that Alexander could hardly speak.
The next day, he returned to his doctor and reported what had happened. The doctor felt that his recommendation had been somewhat effective and advised Alexander to continue with the treatment, but Alexander refused to do this, arguing that if, after two weeks of following the doctor’s instructions implicitly, his problem had returned within an hour, carrying on with the treatment could not give any lasting benefits. He reasoned with the doctor that, if his voice was perfect when he started the recital and yet was in a terrible state by the time he had finished, the problem must be caused by something he was doing while performing. The doctor thought carefully and agreed that this must be the case. So, Alexander asked the doctor to tell him what this cause might be. The doctor admitted honestly that he couldn’t. Alexander left the surgery determined to find out the answer for himself.
Alexander embarked on a journey of self-discovery that would not only give him the answer to his voice and breathing problems but would ultimately lead to a profound new understanding of posture and breathing. He came to realise that many people grossly and unconsciously interfere with their own natural movement, co-ordination and breathing, and that this causes much of our suffering in our modern civilisation.
Alexander’s findings were greatly underestimated at the time, yet it could be argued that his discovery was one of the greatest of the twentieth century. As you will see, Alexander’s story is like a mystery novel. His genius was the insight that he could be unwittingly causing his problems himself. Through his tenacity, he came to prove that this was indeed the case, and found a way to cure his problem.
When he started his investigations, Alexander had just two clues to work with:
- The act of reciting on stage brought about the hoarseness and breathing difficulties which caused him to lose his voice.
- When speaking in a normal manner, the hoarseness in his voice disappeared.
Following simple, logical steps, Alexander deduced that if ordinary speaking didn’t cause him to lose his voice or to breathe badly, but reciting did, there must be something different about what he did while speaking normally compared to what he did when reciting. If he could find out what that difference was, he might be able to change the way in which he was using his voice when reciting, which would solve the problem. He used a mirror to observe himself both when speaking in his normal voice and when reciting, in the hope that he could discern some differences between the two. He watched carefully and could see nothing wrong or unnatural while speaking normally, but when he began to recite he soon noticed several changes:
- He tended to pull his head back and down onto his spine with a certain amount of force.
- At the same time, he depressed his larynx (the cavity in the throat where the vocal cords are situated).
- He also began to suck air in through his mouth, which produced a gasping sound.
Up until this point, Alexander had been totally unaware of these habits, and when he returned to his normal speaking voice he realised that the same tendencies were present, but to a much lesser extent, which was why they had previously gone undetected and why they didn’t cause the hoarseness. After this breakthrough, he returned to the mirror with new enthusiasm and recited over and over again to see if he could find any more clues, and soon noticed that the three issues became accentuated when he was reading passages in which unusual demands were made on his voice. This confirmed his earlier suspicion that there was a definite connection between the way in which he recited and the strain on his voice.
Alexander’s experiences led him to question how he consciously directed himself while reciting, and he realised that he had never given any thought to how he moved, but simply moved in a way that was habitual because this felt ‘right’ to him. So, he tried a different strategy: he experimented with just thinking or directing his head to go forward, and realised that he merely had to think of the directions in order to bring about a change.
While there was some success, he noticed that he was still pulling back his head to a certain extent and he looked for all possible causes. After a while he saw that he gave his directions successfully right up to the time of reciting, but then immediately reverted back to the habit of pulling his head back and causing tension throughout the body. He realised that he had been so goal-oriented when it came to reciting that any attempts to ‘get it right’ had resulted in tension in his neck muscles. Alexander referred to his tendency to become overly focused on a goal, without considering the way in which he achieved it, and his next challenge was to find a way to become less fixated on his goal.
‘ We often need to do the very thing that feels wrong.’
He decided to try giving himself a space between the stimulus to speak and the action of reciting. He called this process inhibition and, by giving himself this time and using his directions, he was able to notice and change the ingrained habit of pulling his head back. The principles and techniques that he conceived, which primarily consist of awareness, eradication of harmful habits and free choice, are what form the basis of what we know today as the Alexander Technique. Through diligent practice, he was able not only to free himself from the harmful habits which had jeopardised his career, but also to cure himself of the recurring breathing problems that had afflicted him since birth.
I do not claim to have discovered any new method of breathing, but to understand the only true one – Nature’s.
F. Matthias Alexander
How to Breathe
This was an extract from How to Breathe by Richard Brennan. How to Breathe shows you how to relearn your natural rhythm of breathing to beneficially alter the way you think, feel and act. Packed with breathing techniques to use at home, and featuring groundbreaking methods developed by the founder of the Alexander Technique, it will help you rediscover how to breathe naturally to improve every aspect of your life. By applying consciousness to the action of breathing, you can become aware of harmful habits – and alleviate common breathing problems in the process.